- Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions by Jay d. Green
Jay Green, Professor of History at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Georgia, has written a survey of five current approaches to combining the Christian faith with the practice of history. The first approach Green characterizes as taking religion seriously. In the twentieth century, he explains, the general drift of academic history was toward the treatment of religion, if at all, in naturalistic terms as one among many objects of social scientific research. Even the massive achievement of Perry Miller in reappropriating the Puritans for mainstream American history was performed at the expense of concentrating on their mind rather than on their faith. Hence some Christian historians have reacted by treating religion as irreducibly religious. This method, Green urges, enables the Christian faith to foster empathy for historical agents. A second approach consists of the application of a Christian worldview to historiography. This way of integrating faith and learning has been championed by two Reformed scholars who have worked with distinction at the University of Notre Dame, Mark Noll and George Marsden. Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) classically deplored the neglect of academic work such as history writing by conservative Protestants; Marsden provided a program for remedying the deficiency. History, in the third place, has been treated as a moral guide. In a more miscellaneous chapter on this subject, Green points out how historians of the right and the left have exploited the past to provide sanction for their political opinions. Yet the author believes that it is right to link morality with history, not least because it is probably in the last resort impossible to divorce them. There are, he proposes, responsible and irresponsible ways of doing it. Fourthly, Green reviews techniques by which history has been deployed as a form of Christian apologetic. The Christian faith, commentators have argued, carries the credit for generating Western civilization or, more narrowly, American freedom. Green raises two objections to this strategy. On the one hand, it encourages historians to stretch the evidence to fit their preconceived notions; on the other, it assumes that cultural advances are the fruit of religious faithfulness. The author clearly dissents from this point of view. Equally, he objects to the fifth way of practicing Christian history—history within a providentialist framework. The doctrine of providence, he contends, is essential to Christianity, but discerning a superintending providence is not. Christians, marked as they are by finitude and sin, cannot hope to see the hand of God in the past. Indeed (and this is where the book is most original) [End Page 795] the very doctrine of providence rules out providentialism. The book of Job, for example, teaches that the ways of the Almighty are inscrutable. Green therefore mounts a Christian critique of placing events within a providential scheme.
The author, as this summary suggests, does not stand back from assessment, but his main purpose is expository. The five viewpoints are explained with clarity and appropriate illustration. Although the coverage is largely Protestant, Catholic authors such as Lord Acton (inevitably), Christopher Dawson (who is held up for admiration), and Brad S. Gregory (among contemporaries) find their place in the analysis. The conclusion is that Christian historians should understand their work as a vocation, however secular their subject-matter. Christian historiography is a holy task which ought to be done well. Few will want to disagree.